January 18, 2024

My sister Sylvia van Oort is travelling in Italy with my brother-in-law, Franc van Oort. They sent this from Palermo. Sylvia wrote the words and Franc made the drawing.

There is a place in downtown Palermo where everybody goes by at one time or another. We walked from our tiny apartment through a narrow alley, turned right and found ourselves on the via Vittorio Emmanuele, the main thoroughfare down to the sea. A few blocks down we came to the beating heart of downtown – I Quattro Canti, or four corners, where the two main streets of this city have intersected for many centuries. As both streets are now largely pedestrianized there was a coming together on this crossroads, as though two rivers were meeting, a large semi circular fountain on each scalloped out corner, with below each one steps, and above each rising three stories high, a  sculpture of dignitaries in 17th century garb, above which statues of angels, then more decorations, and eventually the roofs. Every type of person imaginable entered the space strolling about, or conversely determinedly going about their business. Tiny motorized scooters zipped through, often with two people plus bags balanced on them, parents pushing strollers, tourists with rolling suitcases, and the odd ‘carabinieri’ car who seem to be able to get anywhere at all.

A tall imposing fellow in a long coat and top hat was walking about bellowing well known operatic arias, accompanied by an amplified speaker he had placed in one of the corners. The acoustics were great, one couldn’t help but hearing him, the effect was one of joyous abandon! They must have been very well known songs as many of the people coming on to the scene sang along as they approached. There was also a funky looking smoky chestnut roasting cart adding to our senses, smallish chestnuts here which they sell in little paper bags. We sat down on the stone steps under one of the fountains for a while. Franc drew a picture of a horse who was patiently waiting to take some willing tourists for a ride in the carriage he was hitched to. The driver Giovanni and his grandson Mario peered as the drawing took shape, we interacted somewhat- I must say we had more in common with the grandpa. (The boy was a true millennial, not able to interact except with cell phone in hand) At first the old man was patiently scooping the horse droppings, with two small boards he put them into a large bag which he kept under the fountain. He then equally patiently waited for his next customers. They didn’t seem to be soliciting very vigorously, I sat there happily people watching, just enjoying the moment. This beautiful place meant so many things to so many people. Soon we watched as four willing customers climbed on board the carriage, and Giovanni prepared to take them on a tour of his city. We got up, bid goodbye, and joined one of the rivers, and as it carried us away we were glowing with our time well spent.